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The Cover Story is available here: Chile’s Millennial President Is a New Kind of Leftist Leader
Gabriel Boric, Chile’s youngest ever president, is leading his country through a historic decision. Chileans will soon vote in a referendum on Sept. 4, just six months after Boric’s election.
The old constitution, written in 1980 under rightwing dictator Augusto Pinochet, has helped to shape Chile into what it is today: a business-friendly, small-government country, richer than most of its neighbors in South America—but also a deeply unequal society, where working class people struggle to make ends meet.
Specially elected members of the assembly created the new constitution. They promise progressive and sweeping reforms such as an improved national health system, increased autonomy for Indigenous peoples and stronger controls over mining. The supporters claim it will make Chile a more equal, democratic, and better country. Opponents claim it will bring down economic and political stability. According to polls, a majority vote against it.
Boric is an ex-student leader, 36, who won election in December 2021 on the back mass demonstrations calling for social change. He now wants Chile to adopt the constitution. Whatever happens, as Chile’s most leftwing president in half a century, he is promising to transform the country.
Ciara Nugent, a TIME staff writer, met with Boric to talk about the constitution, his rise in politics, and his plans for Chile. This transcript has been condensed, edited and translated for clarity.
TIME: Your student union was relaunched at 14 Why did you choose to get involved in politics so young?
Gabriel Boric: In seventh grade in 1998 I was aware that Chile had a problem. That was also the year Pinochet was arrested in London. It was the year I witnessed a demonstration by relatives of missing detainees. I couldn’t understand it. I don’t know how someone can make somebody disappear. Other than magic. Is that possible? That was when I realized the profundity of this question: “Where are they?” This made me curious to find out more. When I understood the history, I understood that the privileges that one has in a country like Chile are sustained by the fact that others don’t have them. This made me angry. I was angry and wanted to make things right.
Boric with students leaders in 2012.
Fernando Lavoz—NurPhoto/Getty Images
This kind of anger was resonating nationally two decades later when you served as a Congressman. Was that how you felt then?
You [leftist politicians] felt like we had a responsibility. We couldn’t just be agitators. There had to be an alternative. It had to be something that could help channel the conflict. And that’s why together, with others, we bet on the process for the new constitution.
Chileans will soon vote for the revised constitution that emerged from that process at an Sept. 4 referendum. How do you feel about the text?
I think it’s positive. It’s an advance. This organization is tackling important issues not just for Chile, but all around the globe. The vision it has is one of harmony between the development of society and the care of the environment. This was something that was completely alien to 20th century constitutions. This vision incorporates a feminist viewpoint, which is essential. And it establishes some tremendously important things, which we have to advance toward progressively: workers’ rights, the spreading of opportunities and resources outside of Santiago. It is a draft that I like. There are always things that could be improved, and we’re having that debate. But it’s a big step forward for Chile.
Surveys show that a majority Chileans intend to reject this document. Can you please clarify the consequences if this happens?
Yes. Yes. Chile made the decision to adopt a new constitution in October 2020. Chile decided in October 2020 that a new constitution would be needed. It had to be written and approved by a special body that was specifically elected for this purpose. That mandate is still in force. Even if rechazo ends up winning, that would be legal, it is our duty to keep the people’s mandate.
Is that a vote for a new constitution?
That’s what we as a government want to do. Because we understand that there is a mandate from the people: this isn’t a whim. That is the decision of the people. We can study the details but that’s the main mandate.
A rejection would be pretty disastrous for your agenda, wouldn’t it?
Still, there is consensus that a new constitution is needed and we must update our foundations. I’m confident that we can get there regardless of September 4th. As a government we have the obligation to govern no matter what. These problems go far beyond what is discussed in the constitution. Rising living costs, inflation, security, rights of children, education, health reforms, tax reforms, we’re going to continue working on all that. It will be a while before we get there if Rechazo is elected.
A common trait that people associate with leadership is the ability to listen and take into consideration opposing viewpoints.
One thing I believe is important is to stay away from the fanatics. And be able to always remind yourself of why you’re here, to put your own path under revision. To be constantly inquisitive about yourself, you must. It is really helpful to listen in order to achieve this..
Do you find it difficult to make a decision after so many doubts and questions?
No. A moment comes when you’ve listened enough and you say, let’s go. Doubting doesn’t mean being erratic or insecure, but being able to improve your own position by listening to those in front of you. Sometimes that may mean taking a bit longer to listen. I always say: we’re going slowly because we’re going far.
Since taking office, you have done a lot of U-turns. Concerning security and withdrawals from pension funds. That is how do you explain it?
It is clear that when we are in government our responsibilities differ from what they were at other times. Chileans consider me the president. So sometimes I have to do things I don’t like. I think in politics, changing your position isn’t a weakness, as long as it’s coherent with your principles. I’m more concerned about people who can never change their mind. In the end, the decisions you take can’t be about your personal pride, they have to be about what best serves the people you represent. I’m more concerned about the people who never change their minds.
Boric celebrating his win with supporters, on December 19.
Felipe Figueroa—SOPA Images/LightRocket/Getty Images
You changed your mind on Araucanía, the southern region where small groups of Mapuche separatists are in a violent conflict with the state. You imposed a state of emergency on the region’s roads after having opposed similar measures by your predecessor Sebastian Piñera. Some Mapuche campaigners say it seems like you don’t know what you’re doing.
It was clear that we had a tendency to be a bit stubborn in our initial attempts at tackling it. But I’m still convinced that a state of emergency is not the solution. Because of our huge security problems, we had to make it happen. But I’m convinced that the solution will come through a political dialogue between the Mapuche people and the Chilean state. It will soon be 200 years since the Tapihue Agreement in 1825 when the Mapuche and Chilean states established their relationship. It’s time to negotiate again, and forge a new relationship that isn’t based on violence, exclusion, or poverty. And that’s where we have to concentrate our efforts. There are however some Mapuche groups which, while not representing the whole Mapuche population, have arms. These people are anti-dialogue and will use force to their advantage. They must be subject to the same law as any Chilean.
Do you worry that militarizing civilian areas could increase the likelihood of human rights violations?
All we did was protect the roads. Soldiers are not allowed to interfere in public order or common situations. Certain protocols are required in the event of an encounter with weapons. To ensure that there is no violation of human rights, we will be extremely strict. That was our commitment when we came to the government. We can’t abandon it now.
It could be argued that Chile at the moment is in instability needs a leader who takes decisive and clear action, not resigning.
I think we’re doing that. First of all, you have to realize that it’s a moment of uncertainty in the whole world. Look at Europe: there’s a brutal energy crisis, inflation, and war on European soil. It is important to recognize that these are very uncertain times. We need political leaders that can find a way forward in this uncertain world. We’re doing that. We’re not paralyzed.
How can you help Chile move forward?
We have presented tax reform. We’ve laid out what happens after the referendum: either improvements if the draft is approved on Sept. 4, or a new constitutional process if it’s rejected. We’ve deployed an economic package of more than $3.5 billion dollars to confront the effects of the crisis in a fiscally responsible way. There’s a way.
Your most famous quote is probably: “if Chile was the cradle of neoliberalism, it will also be its grave.” I think some people in other countries might have heard “capitalism” in place of neoliberalism.
It’s not the same, no.
You weren’t announcing the end of capitalism, were you?
Annihilating the death of an industrial system would be very arrogant. The fact is, neoliberalism in Chile was a strong practice. They reduced the size of the state. This led to radical individualism. We should as society strive to be more than capitalism. I’m not like I can say “capitalism ends today.” What I aspire to is that our government has the space to advance towards a social state of rights—what in the 20th century was known as social democracy, but incorporating new perspectives, like feminism, how to face the climate crisis, coexistence between different territories in Chile.
So, you don’t see yourself as a socialist?
Liberal socialists are what I hold dear. They were also very critical of the progress of the Left in 20th Century. Private initiative and organizational spirit are important to me. I believe in the organisation of civil society. They are complementary to the state, I believe. I don’t see a state controlling everything like in the socialisms of the 20th century, which failed. It is up to us to accept the failure.
The president peeks out from the balcony of the presidential house, Palacio de la Moneda, Aug. 12—the same one he used for his speech on the day of his inauguration as president.
Luján Agusti for TIME
Latin American leftist elder leaders have been known to bend or even trampel the laws of democracy and institutional governance. Are democracy and leftism more important for you?
I don’t believe they’re contradictory. I’m a deeply democratic leftwing person. The authoritarian tendencies that left leaders allow on the left has done much damage to not just the idea of the Left but to their people as well. That’s why I am a democrat first and foremost.
How will this affect your relationship with the region
I can’t get outraged when rights are violated in Palestine but not in Nicaragua. If the defense for human rights is not complete, it becomes less credible. I am very critical of the authoritarian drifts in the region’s left, and that has cost me a lot of criticism in my political sector. Sometimes in my sector there’s not much willingness to criticize your own. And I think that’s a mistake.
Is it frustrating? Do you find yourself unable to see the abuses being committed on your left?
It can be frustrating. It is frustrating, but it motivates me to do better. And in Chile we’re going to do it differently. I also have hope that with some of the new government—Petro’s for example, or potentially Lula’s if he returns—that we can advance in that direction.
You said during the Summit of the Americas that the region’s authoritarian governments—Cuba, Nicaragua, Venezuela—should still be invited to international meetings.
Exclusion hasn’t worked to correct things. Take Cuba as an example. You can see Cuba. [Organization of American States]In the seventies. Is that having any effect? I would prefer to be able to tell Daniel Ortega that I don’t agree with him and he should release political prisoners—[like] Dora Maria Tellez—to say that to his face and confront him. If we have multilateral events and we only get those of us that agree together, it doesn’t make sense any more.
Are you adamant that you can make a difference in Chile by being successful in your efforts to bring about progressive changes in democratic ways?
Chile faces many difficult problems. The main objective of government must be to improve the lives of your citizens. You can’t worry about how history will unfold. If you do that you’ll get dizzy. After that, it will fall to other people to review the results.
What do you think of the region’s other millennial leader, El Salvador’s Nayib Bukele. Are you a dictator?
I don’t know him personally, and he hasn’t participated in multilateral summits. If you decide to withdraw from the summits, it is highly suspicious. You should be open to scrutiny by your peers. According to what I know and from conversations with Salvadorans it is clear that there is an authoritarian trend towards confronting a very serious problem: gangs. I know it is a really difficult situation and has to be confronted very decisively, but that can’t be done by undermining democracy. The truth is I don’t identify with the way Bukele is leading his government. He may feel the same way about me.
At the moment there’s a lot of talk about what will happen in Brazil if Bolsonaro doesn’t accept the results of October’s election. If that were to happen, what would you do?
First, it was very encouraging to see the Sao Paulo letters, which bring together one million signatures in support of democracy from a broad cross-section. [of society and politics.]It was clearly a sign that Brazil is resolute. If there was an attempt, like there was in Bolivia for example in 2020, where accusations of fraud ended up being used to justify a coup d’etat, Latin America has to react together to prevent that happening.
You’ve talked a lot about the climate crisis. What are your plans to lead the way on this?
Our country is one of few Latin American countries that have committed to becoming carbon neutral by 2050. That is why we are determined to move that goal forward. The opportunity exists to become an industry leader in the field of renewable energy. To export these energy sources to the rest of the world. To do so we’ll need investment and alliances with other countries.
Petro agrees with me when he states that all people have a responsibility. But some people are more responsible than the others. The Paris Agreement requires that more advanced polluters fulfill their obligations. They must meet ours. It is my hope that we, as Latin American nations, will unite under one roof to do this.
As a region, what can you do to force others to action?
Consider, for example, making the export of energy or raw materials conditional upon changes in consumption behaviour in developed countries.
Is this copper or lithium?
Yes. And hydrogen.
Although Chile is home to large amounts of these metals, the extraction of them has done a lot to damage the environment. Is your government more concerned about mining companies than the previous governments?
Fear not. We’re going to demand higher environmental standards. We expect those standards to be met. But we’re going to respect the law. We need to be able to give certainty. The following people were interviewed: [Australian mining company]BHP, for instance. BHP has made a $20 billion investment Chile. And the important thing for them is to have certainty that we don’t change the rules half way through the game. Although we are demanding in the environmental arena, we also have to adhere to the Chilean State’s promises.
A lot of the foreign leaders you’re meeting these days have much more formal political cultures than the one you’re fostering here. Do you think any would be comfortable wearing a tie?
No. I think you have to show respect for people’s positions, and their countries, but also for the country you represent. Each person has their own style. The way we dress changes over time. Today’s masculinity is feminine. The French monarchs were dressed in high-heeled stockings and wearing heels. Then you see Barack Obama sitting at his desk, with his sleeves up. I think I’m part of a transition. Ties just don’t make any sense to me.
The President walks down a street within the Yungay district, August 12. Boric settled down in Santiago’s historic, low-income neighborhood after taking office.
Luján Agusti for TIME
You feel when Chileans criticize your protocol violations. Like leaving your fly down…
Ah but that wasn’t a breach of protocol, it was a mistake! The pants didn’t fit right. The suit was new. [the zipper] came down. And now I’m always worried when I’m getting out of the car.
Today, I am aware that I hold an office larger than myself. Because I am the representative of Chile, I must be careful about how I present myself. It’s okay for people to not like my clothes but I have to be orderly, clean, and worthy of the office. The criticism is understandable. And I’ve had a high level exposure for many years: I don’t [have]You don’t need a mohawk. It’s just part of the job.
You’ve spoken very openly about having OCD and about mental health problems. This shows how bizarre it is for politicians not to talk about these issues. It’s very unlikely you’re the only one who has such struggles.
I think there’s a stigmatization of mental health where it’s associated with weakness. No one will criticize a president for being diabetic, but if a president has OCD it’s a problem. These myths must be dispelled. It is possible to treat most mental disorders these days. It is important to discredit them. OCD led me to be interned at a mental hospital. And when I told people that, a lot of people wrote to me, relieved, to say, ‘Thank you, saying we had felt silenced.’
Here’s a question you might ask in a job interview: What are your worst flaws
There’s a lot of them—no doubt. I think in my life I’ve been very intense, but there are times I haven’t been very methodical. Routines can prove difficult for me. I’m not very well studied in math and science— though that’s why you have a team. I’ve made mistakes by being impulsive. It is important to not take decisions with a hot mind, as you might get mad.
What can you do when under pressure at work?
Nearly every hour I listen to music. These are my top picks. [in La Moneda]. In my house I have a good record player, and a CD player too— I still buy CDs. Recently, I bought Bob Dylan’s complete collection of 37 CDs. This is a really good collection. Blood on the Tracks Since 1975. Ciro Rodriguez is also a Cuban. Charlie Garcia, an Argentine. Los Prisioneros in Chile. Punk is my favorite. Tool, a more widely-known act, is one of my favorites. Pearl Jam. Nirvana. Alice in Chains. I’ve listened to a lot of Metallica in my life. Radiohead.
Taylor Swift is another example? After supporting Swiftie in January, you gained an international following.
Ha, I’m actually not such a massive fan of Taylor Swift. It was that Taylor Swift has many fans in Chile, and they started to talk about me. They adopted me. I learnt her whole story, about her creative process; that she had to win back her albums because they defrauded her and she had to record them all again: “Taylor’s version.” I like Red. Folklore, “Cardigan.” It’s not the style of music I’m most into. Swifties are my favorite band.
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